Fallout Graphing Calculator, A pip Boy

Autism and the Evolution of Obsession5 min read

I will always be that person with the calculators.  It wasn’t always calculators for me.  But at a certain age, I embraced a thing and committed to it.  It may have changed and evolved, but now when it happens I know that I simply found a new thing.  I found a new calculator.

Don’t get me wrong, all calculators are not created equally.   It was always Texas Instruments graphing calculators for me.  I have to have some standards, right?

Texas Instruments TI-82.  Photo by ChrisJ

I remember being in late elementary school, waiting at the dance studio while my younger sisters went through their practice sessions, and I watched the older dancers stretching on the open floor with backpacks and books spread in semicircles and TI-82’s in hand, battling their algebra.   I was instantly engaged.  These tiny computers seemed a science fiction to me.  The idea that one could easily find the answer to complex and abstract problems with a handheld computer with an LCD display got me.  Legos would never be able to compete again.

I dove headfirst into them in 6th grade, reading everything I could find about them now that I had my very own pip-boy.   There was so much good information available just one modem dial away.  The bulletin boards had everything I needed to lose myself in something I consumed like food or water.   Hardware, Software, C++, Z80, 68k.  It was my first true love.

Malice Mizer

My second calculator was Visual Kei and Jrock.  Visual Kei was the Japanese hybrid of visual artistic presentation and music popularized by bands like Malice Mizer, X-Japan, and Dir en Grey.  These “boy bands” would often combine rock and punk-infused gothic pieces with operatic vocals, all while dressed in elaborate costumes, suits, dresses and makeup.  Albums were released with photo books and art house music videos and each albums new aesthetic tied in to the musics concept.  The comfort of the all-consuming obsession, and the stimulation of going all-in was life-saving.   Even when the initial drive eventually subsided, I could always think fondly of these things.  Eventually I didn’t have any more calculator emulators on my computer, and I didn’t carry my TI-89 with me anywhere.  But I’ll always be proud of that focus, that quest for knowledge and analysis.

I’ve had calculators that I was less proud of.   Halo: Combat Evolved comes to mind.  Don’t get me wrong, I deeply enjoyed Halo, and the stories, and books, and lore, and the ARG called, “I love bees.”  But it doesn’t have the same universal application as many of the others did.  This significantly diminished the utility of my obsession.  Halo 5: the Guardians didn’t really help, either.

Music gave me long-term artistic skills and some unique quirks (like my love for Japanese music from the 90’s) that I still find useful to this day.  I never would have imagined playing, touring, and recording in a band full time, and I may have never experienced that had I not already found what music could offer me.   Costume skills and makeup were a huge plus.  And karaoke in another language is usually a hit at already-awkward social events.  Either that, or it seems super weird to people who have never heard it.

Theater was a truly useful calculator for me.  I threw myself into the impossible task of acting, and the beautiful challenge of writing and directing, or the practical skills of tech work.   It was a collection of skills that I sorely needed.

But I wasn’t immune to the adverse effects of bad calculators.  Ayn Rand, nihilism, and edgy online culture.   I’m lucky to have survived that one.  Thankfully it just didn’t add up the deeper I got into things.  That’s really a very long conversation that I may not be up for at this time.

Pepe Hands

This does, however, bring me to a very serious question I have been asking myself.   What happens when you can’t solve the deepest problems with your calculator?  What happens when no one wants to listen to you, the digital reincarnation of Chicken Little?

I’ve been concerned that I may be moving closer than I wish to a new focus.  With stakes that are much higher than the temporary victory of the Covenant until I respawn.   How does one keep their mental health in tact when the literal fate of the planet is under direct threat?   How does humanity address the rise of fascism around the globe?  How do we deal with the tremendous increase in wealth inequality?

For everyone else, this calculator is just a tool.   For the people in the world caught in my simplistic metaphor, they can put it down.   They can take the batteries out.  They can decide they don’t care about it.  But what happens when my monomania grabs hold of something serious?   I don’t pretend to have solved all of the problems, but from my perspective it seems that most people just don’t care at all.

We have seen extreme right-wing terror across the world, we have made excuses for injustice across the globe.   We have supported and upheld unjust hierarchies.  Should I have just picked a new, shinier calculator, or am I cursed with this monomania to be a monument to all your sins?

I’m still learning the ropes, either as a figure of speech or on the figurative ship of life’s journey.   I would like to hope that some of the folks reading this can relate, even if it’s just a little bit.  You’ve probably met someone just like me who would love to talk about how long it took Data to get the joke from the Farpoint mission.   The one friend who knows about every time John Lennon cut his hair.  Ok, maybe that last one took things too far.

I don’t mean to insinuate that I am to be defined by my serial obsessions.   It’s quite different.  I found these things and something resonated with me to the point that I devoted time, and effort, and resources to pursue these things.   Often times, this means sacrificing appearing cool, or deprioritizing various social functions to climb that bizarre hierarchical tree.

Do you have a calculator or two in your pocketses?   Do you find yourself relieved as you throw 100% of yourself at a topic, task, or hobby?   Who can deny the incredible engineering of trains and aircraft?  Do you love watching Friends or Seinfeld and know every single episode and everything about the actors involved?   Sports stat god?  Resident expert on Andy Warhol or Gustav Klimt? 

Calculators come in every shape and size.  Your passions and obsessions will carry on with you throughout your life.  Don’t be ashamed of them (at least most of the time).  Look at what they show you about life and the world and rejoice in your mind.   There is absolutely a good reason why something left that mark on you. 

Wear it proudly.

Ruined Panopticon

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3 Comments

  1. I really enjoyed reading this!  You illustrated autistic special interest so well, both the positive and the negative. 
    My favorite “calculators” have been guitar and singing, theatre, and books.  I had an unfortunate emo girl phase “calculator” in highschool, but thankfully that one passed .

  2. What a great article.  I love the metaphor of a calculator being used to describe are monmaniacal quests.  Also love the psuedonymn “Ruined Panopticon”.  Had to google that one.  It’s metaphor is also not lost on me.  And now some google alghorithm is wondering how my searching for it relates to my perception of their “all-observing eye”.  Quest on, my friend.  Quest on

  3. I am absolutely blown away by these wonderful articles!  I am a reformed Autism Speaks mama, and I can’t tell you how helpful it has been to be made aware of my ignorance.  My son is 17 (18 in June) and we have had some awesome talks about his future and where HE wants to be.  I am reading every article and strive to do better in listening to my son.  Thank you for helping me understand!!!!!!!

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